Art, death, bodies

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

I don’t understand art.

I tend to read the little placards next to paintings, or find the descriptions written somewhere on the walls near installations. I take note of the details, and then glance at the art to confirm that what those words have told me is true in what I see. Checking that off, I then move on to the next piece of writing and repeat the process. Trips to art galleries and museums are often an experience in digesting what someone else tells me about something and taking that as the truth. 

I went on a little excursion to the Auckland Art Gallery last week to see a couple of exhibitions that explore the body, gender, identity and feminism. ‘Bodies’ are part of my PhD research and I’m also using the creation of ‘art’ as a research tool. So I thought this might be an enlightening exercise. What answers could I find for how to express and explore bodies through art? What could someone else tell me? 

I tend to do that. Base what I should do on what someone else says. How to explore bodies. How to make art. How to write. How to do a PhD. How to coach. How to work. How to be a mother. How to be a leader. How to be a wife. How to be a friend. Sister. Friend. Colleague. Daughter. Someone please just give me the instruction manual for life. I promise I’ll follow the rules and live peacefully. 

What I’d like to tell you is that I had an epiphany moment. That I found some answers. But there wasn’t. Not really. Or maybe there was. All I can tell you is that I stopped reading the instructions. With my back to the exhibit, I tracked the text down the wall, noting what it told me…. and then stopped halfway …. and turned around. I did it for no particular reason than a flicker of thought; ‘what might I experience differently if I stopped listening to what someone else told me and looked at what was there?’

As it turned out, I turned around to be confronted by death. In the form of booming words of melancholy from Shahryar Nashat’s installation in the Honestly Speaking exhibition asking “what happens to my body when I die?, Who will carry me forward to the next place?” Aside from the physical discomfort bought on by holding a heavy handbag the duration of the video, I felt uncomfortable and sad.  Death is a hard thing to stand with. But reminders of death keep appearing in my research. 

As mothers we lend our bodies to our babies, to extend ourselves forward in time. In a way, a little piece of us will walk on past our own deaths. We will be tied to the land through a continual link. Our bodies are integral to this smallest piece of immortality. But how do we, as mothers, walk the world in our bodies? There is a piece by Robyn Kahukiwa in the The Body Reborn exhibit expressing the disconnection of Māori mothers birthing children to the land when there is no longer a Māori land for them to walk on*. In my research, in myself, and the world around me, I see enmeshed judgements and disconnections levied at ourselves or served up by others, that threaten our tenuous links with our bodies, and our connections to our worlds through them. What comes next for us?

We all die. Our consciousness is bound by our bodies and it’s fallibilities. For the most part, particularly in Western culture, we don’t like being reminded of this fact. And it’s why the transferring of ourselves to some form of artificial intelligence is so alluring. But also why allusions to death through reminders of fluidity, where our ultimate bodily release is to soak back into the earth (or burn in flame), are so uncomfortable. Birth, in its leaky bloodiness, and anything associated with it (e.g. pregnancy, periods, emotions) are abhorrent within normalised structures of order and control, cleanliness and sanity. What we gravitate to in order to feel safe from our ends. Encountering fleshy humanity within organisations is a reminder, at a very deep level, that we will die. 

The consequence of this is that the parts of our lives, where bodily sensations – feeling, emotion, empathy – are inhabited, are often denied or silenced. They are tucked away so as not to unsettle us. They are given less value. Think of the caring work or emotional labour that goes on in the home or the equivalent of these within paid employment. This is the ‘women’s work’ that women so often inhabit. This work is often the work of the body. This is where our connections to people and what we do for them bring us into reality – make us exist.

In my last stop on my art gallery visit I stared at Jacqueline Fahey’s ‘Final Domestic Expose’**. It was only after looking at it for some time, a chaos of roast dinner, nail clippers, laundry piles, children, dishes, before I read the sign to make sense of it. A sign that asked if we can acknowledge it all and claim the beauty and meaningfulness of it all. 

I still don’t understand art. But maybe that’s the point? 

*This is my interpretation of the imagery. I’d love to understand this better and have more Māori mamas/leaders participating in my research. Please reach out if you’d like to be a part of it. 
** I enjoyed how this image was such a stark contrast with the School of Athens that I wrote about in this blog. Chaos contrasted with control.

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